Better Than Nothing by studentnumber24601
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Better Than Nothing



My eyes follow him as he blearily sits up and stretches, then shakes blond hair from his face and puts the eye patch in place. He's been out almost all night again, I could tell 'cause he hadn't gotten in yet when I hit the sack, after Race finished winning all of my money. Not that I really wanted to play or anything—I've only got so much to lose, y'know?—but I'll admit, I did want to stay up and see when Blink would get in. I wanted it to be before I went to bed...


Sometimes they call me a mother hen, and that's fine. I do care about my friends, all of them, and if people think I'm staying up to make sure no one was beating on Blink in an alley somewhere, that's probably for the best. 'Cause I worry about him; he's good in a fight, but only has the one eye, and that leaves a weakness on his blind side. And he does have a certain attitude that attracts trouble. He doesn't mean to, but he's it's like he's got a blind spot there too: he won't realize he's flirting with someone else's girl, or patronizing the wrong person, or generally making an ass of himself until someone punches him.


I swear, he's gonna get himself killed accidentally. So people figure when I wait up, I'm waiting to make sure he hasn't been in a fight, that he doesn't need the doctor or anything. And I guess that's part of it. I do worry.


But that isn't it, that's not why I wanted him to come home early. When he's out late and doesn't come back with signs of a fight, that means he spent the night with a girl. Not that I'd expect anything different from him, no matter how hard I wish I could, but still. I'd never have a chance anyway, but when he stays out all night, and then brags about it...


"You was out late," Racetrack notes, as we walk towards the bathroom to shave and get cleaned up a bit.


Blink smirks that adorable obnoxious smirk of his, the one that gets him in trouble, and Jack jumps up behind him. "What was her name, huh?" he demands. "You meet another blond?"


"Redhead," he says. "Redhead, green eyes, freckles... Gorgeous, Jacky, I mean it. Like Medda, if Medda was sixteen an' innocent."


"Bet she ain't innocent no more," Race says, and he and Blink play fight a bit. We stop in front of the mirror and lather up, then begin to shave with razors so used they barely make a difference.


"So is she the one?" I ask, hoping it sounds more casual than I feel. My heart speeds up while I wait for the answer. Please no, I think desperately, You can't have met the right girl yet...


"Why you always askin' that, huh?" Blink asks me, elbowing me. My razor, the one that can't cut whiskers, slices up my face as he jostles my arm.


"Ow!" I yell and begin swearing, then douse my mostly-shorn face in water, trying to wash away the blood. "Watch where you're shovin', huh?"


"Sorry," he says sheepishly, and I flick some water in his face. He laughs, he knows I'd never get really angry at him, and I press my hand against the cut until the bleeding stops, wishing it was his hand pressed to my face. Wishing his lips were pressed to mine, wishing I could have been the one he spent last night out with... And then I make myself stop, dwelling on it's no good. He doesn't like me, he doesn't like boys, there's no point. Mush Meyers, you'se an idiot, I think to myself, as Kloppman hurries us out of the lodging house. He doesn't even notice Blink among our ranks, or doesn't care, even though Blink sneaked in long after curfew last night. He does that a lot, though, I think Kloppman's given up.


Jack and Blink take to the front of the line of us, and usually I'd be up there with them, but I just don't feel like it this morning. It's so hard sometimes, being his best friend when that's not what I want from him at all, sometimes I need a break from it. Sometimes I stay away from the lodging house for two or three days at a time, hoping this crush will have gone away by the time I come back, or that at least he'll greet me with a big hug and a, "Where ya been, Mush?"


I usually get that second one, but the first... It's been a year. More than a year. This started almost as soon as I knew him, though I didn't realize what it was until a year ago, and since then... I wish it would go away. 'Crush,' doesn't do how I feel justice. I've never been in love before, and I don't want to be in love with Blink. I can't be, it'll just keep hurting like this...


"Heya, Mush," Race says, slowing down to walk with me while everyone else half-jogs, half-dances to the distribution hall. "You look upset, somethin' wrong?"


"I ain't upset," I say, shrugging, running a finger over the red cut up my chin.


"'Course not," he answers, then, "Just tell me one thing, okay? How long you been in love with Blink?"


I stop walking and stare at him. "What?" I asked.


"How long?" he repeats.


"How... How did you know?" I mean, I know I kinda give Blink these looks sometimes, but I try not to, especially not with other guys around. But I guess...


"Same way I won all that money last night. You got a real bad poker face, Meyers. Anyone who bothers to look can see you got a thing for 'im."


"How many of the guys know?" I ask desperately.


"Not many. I guessed it, I think Crutchy might have, an' Specs, maybe. We ain't talked about it or nothing."


"You can't say nothin' about it, Racetrack," I say desperately, "you can't."


"Don't worry about it. I ain't gonna, I promise. I just wanted you to know you was bein' a bit... Obvious. I probably wouldn't have stayed up to play so late last night if you hadn't been, but you was worried and didn't want anyone to know why, so I figured you could use some cover."


"Thanks."


"Well, I did get some money out of the deal," he reminds me, then slaps me on the back and we begin walking again.


"Aw, hell. Spot me a quarter? That was my last cash, I didn't even realize..."


"Sure thing, Mush." He digs into a pocket and hands me the coin.


"Thanks."


We walk in silence until we're almost caught up. I wonder how Racetrack, of all people, got to be smart enough and good enough at watching everyone around him that he figured me out... But I guess it's from the cards. He can tell when a person's bluffing in poker, he can tell when a person's lying in real life, too. And even though he hides it, he's pretty generous with the money he makes off the cards and the races and all, I think he just doesn't want anyone to notice it. He always plays it down when someone thanks him.


"Just one thing you should think about, though," he says before we're really caught up. "Maybe it ain't the way you want him to, but Blink loves you, too. You'se his best friend, he trusts you more than any of the rest of us... It ain't what you want, but it's better than nothing, right?"


"Right." Better than nothing. It hurts to be his best friend, but I couldn't stand not to be, either. Race is right... Better than nothing. We get in line with the rest of the boys, and even budge our way up to join Jack and Blink at the front, and I try and shrug off this mood so I can joke with everyone else. It's easier when no one is being serious. When it's my turn, I buy my fifty papes and hope for a good headline so I'll be able to get lunch today. Maybe my luck selling will be better than my luck with romance.



*



My luck selling today is, if anything, worse than my luck with romance. The headline was foul, and no matter how far from it I stray in my creative advertising, no one's buying. I sigh, my stomach rumbles, and I still have thirty papers left to sell. It's afternoon now, and I'm still selling the morning edition, 'cause there's no way I could afford to buy the afternoon one.


What a rotten day. I bet I'd be doing better if I'd gotten more sleep last night... I begin winding my way back through the city streets towards the lodging house, still hollering headlines and I even sell one or two. Great, so I've got not quite a quarter, I owe Race money, and I'm not going to be able to get dinner if I want to sell tomorrow. Great.


Something catches my attention off to the side. I'm not sure quite what causes me to look off to the left, but I glance over. Maybe it's my selling instinct, telling me I can find someone over there; maybe it's because by now I could recognize his figure if I saw it for a split second in a dark alley at midnight. Who knows? But something over to the left catches my eye, and I see a guy who looks an awful lot like Blink being dragged off the main street by two redheads, one taller and one shorter than he is. If anyone else notices, they don't care. Me, I care: that guy looked a whole lot like Blink, and even if it's not him, chances are whoever it is doesn't deserve whatever he's about to get.


I don't drop my papers—I can't afford to, do I look like Jack Kelly to you?—and hightail it over to where they were dragging him. I can hear muffled sounds of a fight, and when I'm close enough to see, I'm sure of it: that's Kid Blink and two guys who seem determined to do a number on him. "Damn you, Blink," I mutter to myself. I do not need a fight on top of my foul mood, empty stomach, and bad headlines.


But what am I supposed to do? I set my papers down where I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get them back, and run into the alleyway. Blink is doubled over, I think he just took a nasty kick to the stomach from the guy on his blind side. The other guy punches him in the face and I wince from the sound of the impact. He's yelling, and the guy who kicked him grabs his arm. He turns as best as he can, fist ready, and punches out, but the other guy grabs his arm and raises a knee.


That's got to hurt.


I dash forward and grab the guy who knee'd him, throw my weight on him and we both tumble to the ground and hit it, hard. I scrape my knees and elbows, but at least I was braced for it, and the guy beneath me takes most of the fall for me. He isn't so lucky, the wind is knocked out of him, and as I scramble up I kick him in the side and turn to the other guy.


It isn't really necessary for me to do anything else, though: without the guy who's on the ground to interfere, Blink's recovered, and is throwing blow after blow into the redhead's face and body. Ouch. Like I said earlier; aside from his blind spot, Blink's nasty in a fight.


The guy on the ground reaches for me and I spin and kick again; he falls back to the ground. Blink decides the guy he'd been fighting has had enough—he doesn't look too far from unconscious, and looks over at me and grins. A trickle of blood runs down his face, the patch got ground into his skin and cut it, but he's on a post-fight high and doesn't feel anything. He'll feel some of those bruises tonight, though...


We walk out without saying a word, only pausing for long enough for me to pick up my papers. "Who was they?" I finally ask.


"You remember the girl I was talkin' about this morning?" he asks back. I nod; how could I forget? "She forgot to tell me she had two older brothers."


I laugh and swat him with the back of my hand, and he winces. I know I didn't hit that hard, he must have gotten hit there earlier. "You okay?" I ask.


He shrugs nonchalantly and shakes some of the hair out of his face. I can't help myself, I reach up with my free hand and wipe some of the blood and dirt away, too. He doesn't react, but at least he doesn't pull away from me. "Yeah, fine," he finally says. "Glad you was there, though. You had lunch yet?"


"Ain't sold enough for lunch," I say.


"Hey, let's go to Tibby's," he answers, as though I hadn't spoken.


"Blink, I jus' said—"


"Ah, don' worry about it. I did okay this mornin', ain't got a lot, but if ya don't mind sharin' a sandwich, I can take care of it."


"Don't worry about me," I tell him. "Just go eat."


"No, Mush, you gotta come with me," he says insistently, and how am I supposed to argue with that? He continues, "Ya gotta let me take care of ya sometimes, 'cause you'se always takin' care of me."


I shrug a little and fix my hat instead of answering. What can I say to that, really? I love taking care of him, it means that at least I get to do something for him... We walk mostly quietly back to Tibby's, running into a few friends on the way. Jack asks how Blink got so bruised, and he explains; I roll my eyes. Hooking up with that may girls can't be healthy, but Blink doesn't care. If she's willing, so's he, that's his motto. God, sometimes I hate him...


We get a sandwich and a Coca Cola, and split them both. Blink wolves down his half, and I eat a bit slower; it's the only thing I've got for today, I might as well savor it. He looks over at me and grins that adorable smile of his, the one that means I'll never be able to stay angry at him, ever. He just looks at me like that, and I can't help but grin too...


"Ya know, Mush," he says. "You'se the best friend a guy could ask for, you're always there when I need ya."


I half-smile back at him, since I'm still eating when he says it. And Racetrack is right, that is worth something. He's never gonna love me like I love him, and it can hurt real bad sometimes, but being his best friend is still better than nothing.



*




Originally written in February, '03; CC is still greatly appreciated.